It began on an otherwise gloomy February morning, when an email slid into my inbox enquiring whether I would be interested in interviewing a Kent based writer. Beyond the page, this author was also making waves in the world of slam poetry. I am always honoured when I am asked to review someone’s work or interview a fellow creative, and my interest was especially piqued by this request as I had never come across slam poetry before. Roll forwards a few weeks and here we are. Please allow me to introduce the fantastic Pauline Holmes to you.
There is something so personal about pouring creativity onto a page, in any art form, and Pauline takes that one step further by performing her work too. Slam poetry has its origins in 1980s Chicago, Illinois, when local poet, Marc Kelly Smith, felt that poetry readings had lost their passion and audience attention was waning. The scene grew across the 1990s and 2000s, and today slam poetry is recognised as an artistic movement as well as a genre of poetry.
Although she has had a lifelong love of words, Pauline came to writing in her fifties, and is keen to show that no topic is off limits to her. I meet with her on the back of having a sell out first run of her brand new book: Talk To The Paw.
Pauline, welcome to Cup of Toast! I am delighted to host you today. Slam poetry is defined as “performance poetry”. I read that you first took to the stage as you were encouraged to share your work publicly before looking to publish it, but what kept you going back?
Although nerve-wracking, performing was fun. I’d never had the opportunity before to stand on a stage alone, recite a poem and then have everyone whopping and cheering afterwards. It’s funny, I sometimes hear people saying that they put on a mask when they go up on stage. For me, it’s the opposite, all the shackles come off. My conditioned self, stays on her seat and my true self goes up and performs. I think that because I didn’t do this sort of thing as a child there are no bad memories to trigger anything negative.
Going back to the beginning of your writing, I understand that you first started after a family holiday to Northumberland, could you tell me a little more about this?
In 2016, three generations of the Holmes family went on holiday together. As you can imagine, trying to get the smaller Holmes’ to bed at a reasonable time was challenging! So, in an effort to get them all upstairs I offered to read them a story. The only trouble was, they hadn’t brought any books with them so I had to make something up.
It became a nightly event, the characters in the story were devised by the children and included themselves, their toy dogs, the family dogs, Dylan and Mylo plus myself and my dog Fidget who sat on the bed with them while I conjured the tale. When we got home, they wanted the story typed up for Christmas. All 40,000 words as it turned out!
Was English a favourite topic at school, or was developing your talent more of a post-education connection with words?
English was a favourite topic at school. In fact, it was one of the few things I was good at, mainly because I’ve always had a good imagination and loved reading as a child. It was the only subject I received a Grade A for at O-Level.
Going back to your current work, what do you think makes your slam poetry stand out and connect with your audience?
Accessibility. My language is deliberately straight forward. I want my audience to understand what I’m talking about, the first time they hear it. I try to pick topics everyone can relate to. For example, one of the poems in my book is called Grieving and although in this context I’m talking about losing a pet, the grieving process is still the same and is something we’ll all experience at some point in our lives.
Talk to The Paw is your first published work, and is a collection of poems about dogs. All of these dogs are real, but for those that have not been your own companions, how did you go about researching them before writing each poem?
The other poems are about the dogs of family and friends and those I come across out walking or up at the dog club. It’s surprising how keen people were to share their experiences when they found out I was writing a book. For example, Mabel is owned by my friends Robert and Jarek and although they’ve had many dogs before, she’s been the most challenging when it comes to the recall.
The roast beef incident in Harvey, the Weimaraner is a wonderful story my dear friend Peter used to tell. Sadly, he died twelve years ago. He is the same Peter who features in the poem Guardian Angels and it’s his band of gold that the dog, Ilka touches in the poem Grown Up.
Yogi in Barking the Boundaries is the dog next door.
Dunnit, the basset in Who Dunnit was owned by my lovely friend Carol and really did steal her knickers and stash them in her dog bed!
I must admit I’ve no idea if Boris the Terrier is really called Boris. We’ve passed each other most mornings for years and the little terrier’s reaction is always the same when he approaches another dog. The poor paperboy gives him a wide berth too!
They all sound like fantastic real life characters! Has your attention shifted to canine companions, or have they always been a part of your creative process?
Dogs have always been part of my creative process. They are my favourite thing to write about. They are my passion and joy and I want to spread the word about their ability to enrich our lives.
I read that your favourite poem in Talk to The Paw is To Lizzie. What in particular makes this resonate with you?
I wrote this poem sitting on the swing chair in the garden the day after I first held Lizzie in my arms when she was 4 weeks old. When I wrote it, I was really remembering past dogs and especially Fidget my last dog who had died 6 months earlier. I was describing all the wonderful times we’d had together, all those beautiful memories and looking forward to making new memories with Lizzie.
Those who have experienced the love, and loss, of a canine companion will notice that a number of your poems, such as It’s 2am, Grieving and The Dog from Dorset are deeply personal. How did it feel sharing your emotions of dog ownership, especially after loss, with a wider audience?
You’re right, these are very personal poems. But, when I was putting the book together, I didn’t want to shy away from the tougher side of dog ownership. Grieving talks about all the emotions we feel after losing someone we love. When I wrote it my emotions were especially raw, as I’d just lost Fidget. I wasn’t sure if people would understand the message behind It’s 2am which is about unconditional love. It’s easy to love someone when that love it returned. But, when through disease their behaviour becomes more challenging and they don’t always recognise you, it’s harder. Even now, three years after its creation, the final stanza in this poem has me in tears. I’ve never performed it, the pain is too great.
As for The Dog from Dorset well, the first lessons Lizzie taught me were really hard for me to accept. Lizzie is not Fidget. She has a totally different character. It’s taken time for me to learn to accept her ‘Lizzie-ness’. This is also something I didn’t want to shy away from in the book. It’s not all lovely walks and cuddles in the beginning. Training a dog can be tough. Lizzie is the first dog I’ve had that has a temper and teaching her how to manage her frustration without feeling the need to take it out on my trouser leg, has been challenging. But two years down the line, deeply rewarding. She’s a joy. But thank goodness I was wise enough to ask for help when I was struggling with her behaviour.
How do you hope your readers will feel when they have read your work?
I hope my readers smile at some poems and shed a tear at others. They might even recognise themselves or their dogs or perhaps someone they know in some of the real-life situations I’ve described. Mainly I’d like them to appreciate the way dogs enrich our lives and value the role our pets play in our sense of wellbeing. I hope it makes my readers want to sit on the sofa and hug their dogs.
Aside from our four-legged friends, where else do you draw inspiration?
I belong to a really good writing group which is both fun and the inspiration behind quite a few of my poems which are not dog related. Each session we’re given a photo to look at for a couple of minutes and then asked to write a poem/story inspired by that image. It’s not always easy and some of the time what I write isn’t very good. But is does help to exercise the creative, right-hand side of my brain and occasionally I produce a little gem.
What is your writing process, and do you have a favourite spot to write in?
Everything starts as an idea, a thought. I jot it down. I always have a notebook nearby. There’s one by the bed, another that lives in the car even one in my handbag. I get the bones of a piece onto the page and then start playing with it. Someone once described finding inspiration as a herd of horses galloping through your mind, bringing ideas and words with them. But, if you aren’t quick enough to jot them down as they pass, the thoughts and ideas, quickly fade. You think you’ll remember them, but usually you don’t.
Occasionally I’ll have an idea that doesn’t fade, it just keeps niggling. This is what happened with my poems Reclaiming the Beach and We Are Waving. Both were written following trips to the coast. The images from the day stayed in my head in both cases for ages until I finally started to write. This may sound daft but it felt like both poems had things they wanted to say and wouldn’t go away until I committed to paper. Reclaiming the Beach is about appreciating wonderful wildness of the coast in Winter. It’s been made into a beautiful video; you can see it if you use this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUYxHzmVm_w
We Are Waving is about how much is missed when we’re distracted. A little reminder that a dog’s life is so much shorter than our own and every walk together is precious because we don’t know which walk will be our last.
My favourite spot for writing is at the dining room table looking out into the garden, sitting on the swing chair or upstairs on the bed. If I’m lucky, Lizzie will be lying by my chair if I’m in the dining room, curled up next to me when I’m on the swing chair or pressed against my leg if I’m sitting on the bed.
You talk about your mentor and publisher in an interview with The Bookseller. If you were to offer your own advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
First of all, write, and keep writing, every day if possible. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel inspired, write anyway. Keep all your journals and notebooks. I love going through my old ones every now and then because occasionally I’ll come across something I wrote, which at the time, I thought wasn’t up to much only to discover when I come back to it, that perhaps it’s worth playing with.
Join a writing group. They’re fun, a great way to make new friends and get ideas and exposure to new ways of doing things.
Read, make use of your library. Pick other peoples’ brains, find out what they’re reading and expose yourself to new ideas.
Go to spoken word events. There are lots of literary events and festivals as well as open mic gigs out there.
Watch and listen, tune into conversations. You can get all kinds of ideas listening to people chatting on the train or in the supermarket or watching their antics.
Start sharing your work with the public. Going to open mics was the best thing I ever did in terms of taking my writing to the next level. You can share not just poetry, but short stories too. It’s also another way of meeting like-minded people and making connections. I first came to the attention of my publisher at an open mic event.
Talk to The Paw sold out within three weeks of its first print run. What other work do you have in the pipeline?
I was surprised and delighted that my book sold so well. My publisher, Whisky & Beards have done a second run and it’s available to buy direct from them online or by ordering through your local bookshop.
I also have some breaking news to share, I’ve just had confirmation that I’ll be performing my new one woman show, Pauline Holmes Goes to The Dogs at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. You’ll find me at the Fern Studio (one of Greenside’s venues) in Nicolson Square from the 5th to the 13th August. It’s a feel-good show for dog lovers based on the poems in my book, exploring the wonderful and at times awkward relationship we have with our dogs. I’m excited and daunted in equal measure!
Wow, that’s fantastic – congratulations! Thank you for sharing being so generous in sharing your thoughts with me today Pauline, and best of luck for Edinburgh Fringe!
A little more about Pauline:
Think of a slam poet and what comes to mind? Young people, spouting gritty tales of urban issues. Or a 60 something poet and storyteller with the mind of a child and the wrinkles of someone much older.
Meet Pauline Holmes, an avid dog lover, whose first collection of poems Talk to The Paw has been written ashamedly for those who are at their happiest when covered in dog hair. Published by Whisky & Beards in January 2022, the book is warm, emotional and funny – often all at the same time.
Talk to the Paw is so much more than a book of funny dog poems. It highlights the huge debt we owe to the animals that share our lives, enriching our physical and emotional wellbeing. It deals with complex subjects like coping with bereavement and adapting to change which will affect us all at some point in our lives. It’s written in a way that is gentle and as well as thought provoking.
Among the witty pieces celebrating wicked whippets destroying sofas and Basset hounds hoarding knickers are philosophical works, dogs as companions to the lonely, those giving comfort to the bereaved and a faithful dog called Fudge helping a small child to read. This is a poetry book for dog lovers and everyone else who believes that if we allow ourselves to be open to it, all animals have to capacity to be our teachers, healers and guides.
Despite not starting writing until she was in her mid fifties, having barely picked up a pen since she left school at 16, Pauline has carved out success on the local scene. She first performed in February 2018 at an open mic in Rochester, near her home town of Rainham.
She says: I love sharing my work on stage, sweeping up my audience and carrying them with me while I tell my stories and poems. I use not just the words but the silences between them to help the listener feel the emotions I want to evoke.
I love it when I feel the energy of the room change depending on the type of piece I’m sharing. The hush that develops when I’m holding an audience is very special. That’s when I know I’ve got them, that they’ve made that leap from people sitting in their seats to becoming part of the story on the stage.
She was crowned Kent Poetry Slam Champion in February 2020 and is winner of the Inspired by Dogs poetry competition. Her one woman show, Talk to The Paw debuted at the 2019 Faversham Fringe to great critical acclaim. Recently she was part of the Marlowe Kit Heritage Project run by The Marlowe Theatre and The Rough-Cut Collective. In the Summer of 2021, she was part of the children’s story telling team at Canterbury Cathedral.
When not at work or doing poetry stuff you’ll usually find her pottering about in the garden with muddy hands and leaves in her hair, in the woods playing with her dogs or terrorising the neighbourhood on her bike.
Talk to the Paw is best read curled on the sofa after a walk on a windy beach or having sloshed through a muddy wood, wellies left dripping at the door.
And, if there’s a canine head resting on your lap as you flit through the pages, so much the better.
Quite simply. this is a book about unconditional love.
Pauline Holmes – Talk to the Paw
Published December 2021 by Whisky & Beards
Edited by Whisky & Beards Publishing
Cover illustration by Cathy Chilly
Cover design by Whisky & Beards Publishing
This book has been produced using public funding from Arts Council England.
Pauline Holmes’ debut collection, adapted from her critically acclaimed one woman show, explores our relationship with our canine companions and their role as pets, friends and even life coaches. With a heartfelt blend of humour and mourning, this collection is a must read for anyone who loves, or has been loved by, dogs.
Whisky & Beards Publishing is an author-centric poetry publishing house based, established in 2014. Whisky & Beards is dedicated to ensuring poets are paid properly for their work, through transparent practice and industry-leading royalty rates.
Whisky & Beards works by communicating with its poets, treating them as partners, not products. We believe in the rights of creators above all else, and that business needs creators, not the other way around.
We’re keen on innovation, taking advantage of a range of tools including print-on-demand platforms, pay-what-you-feel products and an internal development approach, helping poets become better artists. We’re not just a publishing house, but a collective, a coaching service, grantwriters and consultants, helping to push poetry in new, dynamic ways.
N.B. I received a copy of Talk To The Paw in order to support my interview with Pauline Holmes. Thank you to Pauline for the book and talking so freely about her work and slam poetry, and to Francesca Baker at And So She Thinks for arranging the interview. All thoughts are my own and this interview is exclusive to Cup of Toast. For more information about how I work with others, please take a look at my disclosure page. I am not responsible for the content on external websites. At the time of publication these links are relevant to the above post.